Challenging behaviour is never far from a teacher’s conversation; from irritating low level disruptions to impossible to handle students, poor behaviour can stump all educators from the newest to the most experienced.
But sometimes, even the subtlest changes in voice, face and body language can alter the direction of events enormously.
All too often, we as teachers look to the changes we desire from the students, and how they are responsible for these changes. However, we have more influence than we realise literally at the tips of our fingers.
As a teacher who has had the privilege to observe my colleagues for several years as part of a T&L improvement team, I have noticed that our body language and tone is crucial to the success of our efforts in engendering the best atmosphere for learning, and for tackling the disruptions which take our lessons off course.
For example, avoid saying things like, “Don’t swing on your chair!” Instead, phrase it as, “Please keep your chair on four feet.” This creates a positive tone for the room. Being negative creates a negative atmosphere in which more confrontations are likely to occur. Put simple, if students are already annoying you, they are less likely to try to avoid annoying you more!
Obviously this doesn’t count if you’re teaching drama or PE, or indeed if you’re writing on the board. However, when talking to students it is a good rule of thumb (arm) to keep your arms below shoulder height. It is hard to not gesticulate at all, however high arms are an aggressive gesture. If there are sensitive or challenging students in your class, high arms will give the wrong indication and either switch them off from learning or increase the changes of conflict.
This is an old rule but a good rule; my grandmother taught me pointing was rude and it works the same in the classroom. It is especially important if disruptions occur to keep fingers away from pointing at the student who is in trouble. A pointy finger will increase the chance of the student becoming uncompromising or aggressive.
When the moment occurs that you need to ‘have a go’ at a student, it is essential that this happens without the aggressive stance of being face to face. Tackling poor behaviour should not replicate pistols at dawn; a face to face position will indicate to the student to take up the fight. Stand back and allow the situation to calm slowly.
This is a good tactic to defuse high level disruptions. It reduces aggression and alleviates authoritative conflict. If a student is angry or upset, reminding them you’re in charge isn’t always the best way forward and sitting down can be a good way to calm things down and to engage the student in a way forward.
Or at least take your frown and turn it upside down. Students respond to your emotional signals, so if you’re conveying frustration and stress, they will respond similarly. A smile, or a relaxed face helps to make a difficult student feel reassured.
Shouting and shrillness create discomfort and conflict. A deeper, quieter voice is calming and more authoritative. This is especially true in high challenge situations.
Nobody likes being in a dictatorial situation and that includes children. Give a choice, even if it is the illusion of one. For example, “You have two choices now. You can either come in and complete your work or you can be parked in Mr X’s room for rest of the lesson and that will come with a consequence.” Remember to always put the preferred option first.
Even when the explanation seems obvious, sometimes a student will just need to feel included in the reasoning. The most difficult students can become as sweet as a flapjack if they believe the decision is being made for them and not just about them.
This is another non-egressive gesture. Palms facing upwards are a signal of sharing and generosity – both of which should be signals from a teacher.
These all might seem very simple, but it is in the crisis moments we must remember to use these and to not be compelled to shout or to demand control. Force needs to be maintained but influence lasts.
Sally is a teacher who has been leading on teaching and learning for her school for the last three years; she has been teaching and leading in English and media for the last 10 years. Over that time Sally has developed and tested many strategies for successful subject delivery while improving enjoyment of learning. In particular, in recent years, she has developed many resources to teach the academic voice of essay writing. She has also taken the lead in developing strategies for creating secure independent learners in the classroom. In her role in teaching and learning she has gathered many top tips for teachers of all subjects. Despite being passionate about her subjects and for passing on that enthusiasm and commitment, one of Sally’s strengths is building and developing relationships in the classroom. Now, she is also furthering her strategies and research by studying for her MSc in Anthropology. Aside from the taught units, her research is focusing on society, culture and learning influences on teenagers.